Gender Studies / Literature

The Gentleman of Bayou Têche by Kate Chopin

Kate_Chopin (1)

Kate Chopin

The Gentleman of Bayou Têche, which is set in late nineteenth century, was written by Kate Chopin. It relates the story of Evariste Bonamour, a black Acadian of the South of United States, who meets Mr Sublet, a gentleman coming to visit Mr Hallet. The outsider wants to take a picture of Evariste in order to publish it in a magazine. The visitor offers money to Evariste in exchange of this service and asks him to keep his dirty clothes:

“he want’ me like I come out de swamp. So much betta if my pant’loon an’ coat is tore, he say, an’ color like de mud”.

Thus, his daughter Martinette and him are confused about these conditions and do not understand why Evariste cannot wear his beautiful clothes. Actually, Mr Sublet wants to use his father to represent a stereotypical image of a black Acadian man:

“Dis heah is one dem low-down ‘Cajuns o’ Bayeh Têche!”

Imperialism

Hence, the white man wants to use the picture of Evariste as a cliché to illustrate the typical black Acadian of the South with dirty clothes, in contrast with white people of the North. This man would then represent and feed the white people’s stereotypes on the people of South. I can link it to the text written by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, From Feminism without borders :Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, From Under Western Eyes : Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. The latter claims that Western feminists use non-Western women for their studies on Women’s oppression to support their theories of the domination of men on women in the Third world. According to these feminists (in Mohanty’s words), women’s oppression in Third world is said to prove the global domination of men on women. Mohanty claims that this is a postcolonial view on the First World on the Third World. Seeing women of the Third World as victims is thought to be part of the postcolonial/colonial thinking on colonized people or country. Here, it is a different matter, but there is still the same idea of colonial/postcolonial and imperialism preconceived ideas on a people, here Black Acadians and African Americans, as it portrays the story of white Americans using Black people as a category of analysis (Mohanty: Women as a category of analysis; or, we are all sisters in struggle). Hence, how does this regional story portray this idea of postcolonial/colonial preconceived images on Black American people ?

Two different worlds

Kate Chopin portrays two different worlds: the one of Black people (Acadians and Black Americans), and the other of the white gentlemen. The two main characters presented are from Acadian origins, the descendants of 17th century French colonists who settles in Acadia, a colony of New France. This is a regional story which sets and represents its local people and accents, with « ‘Cadian » for instance. Moreover, the Acadians Martinette and Evariste Bonamour have French names.

Bayou Têche of Louisiana

Bayou Têche of Louisiana

A local color

The white men and outsiders in general seem to have a kind of fascination for “local color”, as they want to portray the Black characters doing housework or wearing dirty clothes, something that fits the preconceived ideas on “typical” black people they have in mind. The locals look opposed to Mr Sublet and to other white Americans in Mr Hallet’s house, who belong to a higher class, are sophisticated and wearing good clothes, and living in a big house. However, they appear less sympathetic than Black Americans. The magazine target a higher-class American people who would consider Evariste as servile and subordinate lower-class Black Acadian. Indeed, the story depicts Acadians as lower-class, poors who wear damaged clothes and accept money for a picture. They come across as stupid because they do not understand anything about the aim of the picture. They are as victims of white Americans. However, they are also portrayed as honorable and compassionate people. For instance, when Evariste saves Mr Sublet’s son from drawn. The two Acadians come across as naïve and ignorant, especially Evariste, because he does not know why the man wants to take a picture of him. Furthermore, at the end of the story, he is depicted as a child: “shy and child-like” when he is in front of Mr Sublet and Mr Hallet.

Self-representation

The character of Aunt Dicey portrays another kind of local type, as she is African American and speaks with a local accent. In contrast with the two Acadians, she knows the truth about the aim of the picture, and makes fun of them. She comes across as feeling superior: “how simple you an’ yo’ pa is”. Aunt Dicey is an old woman with a strong personality and a sense of self-representation. She belongs to the lower-class but she is still strong and she is not featured as a victim, in contrast with the two Acadians. Dicey refuses to be pictured while doing domestic work and ironing. In this way, Kate Chopin maybe tends to elevate African American from Acadians and represents a difference of classes between them. Thus, Aunt Dicey explains to Martinette that her father is going to be exploited by Mr Sublet. Without Aunt Dicey, Evariste would have been simply bought with money and have been represented like being part of an exotic fauna and flora. Both characters prefer to be portrayed well dressed since they are usually doing for important occasions, and not doing domestic things or wearing dirty clothes. Finally, all the Black characters want to be able to chose and control their representation.

Struggling for respect

Finally, by searching for an answer, Martinette acts and fights for her father’s dignity and does not want him to be a kind of a spectacle or a local freak. Chopin’s black characters struggle for respect. Moreover, Evariste saves Archie Sublet from drown, an act which elevates him as a hero for Archie’s father: “A hero of Bayou Teche”. However, Evariste is humble and refuses this status of hero and prefers instead choosing the subtitle himself. At the end, Evariste decides his own destiny, choosing the words to make his self-representation:

“Dis is one picture of Mista Evariste Anatole Bonamour, a gent’man of de Bayou Têche”.

A critical text

The text offers a critique on the ideology of local color and the exploitation of black and poor people by white Americans. Eventually, there is no guarantee that Mr Sublet will respect and honor Evariste’s wishes at the end, when he returns the picture to the magazine. In the end, Mr Sublet holds the power to publish whatever he wants. Kate Chopin wants to distance from the post-colonial view on Black Acadians and African Americans in the South of the United States. Herself fights against stereotypes with writing. However, while criticizing imperialism, Chopin does quite the same when picturing local color in her texts (also La Belle Zoraïde or other texts of Bayou Folk). She criticized the study of local color by outsiders, but at the same time she studies local color and black characters in her texts.

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